Rob Jungklas was a would-be pop star in the late '80s, scoring a minor MTV hit in 1987 with the single "Boys Town." But after releasing his second album, Work Songs for a New Moon, in 1989, Jungklas didn't release an official album for another 14 years, settling down as a local high school teacher only to resurface musically in 2003 with Arkadelphia on the local roots label Madjack.
That album was a departure from his more commercial '80s music, coming across as something like a personal tour of Delta mythology (including the eternal title "Drunk Like Son House"), a foreboding song cycle populated by a vengeful Old Testament God and an ever-resourceful devil. But for all its evocative Southern gothic energy, Arkadelphia ended with a moral gravity that was more grounded: "I am one man among many/I was raised up to do right/You don't need to meet the devil at the crossroads/To lose your soul on this dark night," Jungklas sang on the closing "Poker Face." >>>
Five years later, Jungklas has returned with Gully, a sort of spiritual and sonic sequel to Arkadelphia. This is a rattled, atmospheric, bluesy roots-rock record that evokes artists such as Nick Cave and Tom Waits, though with more gothic/biblical authenticity, or PJ Harvey circa To Bring You My Love or Bob Dylan circa Time Out of Mind.
With help from guest musicians such as Secret Service guitarist Steve Selvidge and Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, among others, Jungklas and producer Jeff Powell (who recorded at Ardent and Young Avenue Sound) have fashioned a menacing, ghostly sonic statement — a sound that Jungklas seems to comment on in the opening "No Iuka," when he sings, "That drumming that you hear?/It ain't about the rhythm/It's about the strange fruit hanging/In the sycamore tree."
The content matches the sound on Gully. This is an album where a lot of bad things happen but are rarely spelled out: A decomposing, unidentified corpse is found in Nonconnah Creek; multiple songs feature men hiding in the dark with evil intent. As Jungklas sings on the gutbucket blues "John Doe": "There is evil in this world, and it is loosed upon the land."
These "messengers of doom" and tortured souls often challenge or deny God. The protagonist of "Burn Away" addresses his creator tartly, "I'm a sinner/But you've forgiven me/Glad to hear it, God/What makes you think I've forgiven you?" The forlorn lover of "Singing in Your Blood" asserts, "Ain't none of God's business what I do/There's too much at stake/And death's just another rule/For us to break."
But in the world Jungklas creates, these characters are fooling themselves — their defiance destined to be met with swift retribution. "God will not be humbled/God will not be shamed," Jungklas sings on the title track. "God will not suffer this in silence/He will make you call his name."
As all these lyric citations make clear, Jungklas has a way with words, which is what most sets him apart on the local music scene. Contemporary Memphis music is full of talented formalists of many stripes and authentic blues/roots players, but sharp wordsmiths are more rare. Jungklas might rival Harlan T. Bobo as the most interesting songwriter in Memphis music right now.
Notes from Mississippi
Among those talented formalists are the North Mississippi Allstars, the three-piece blues-rock band that also has a new album out steeped in the sounds and imagery of the Delta South. The album is Hernando, named after the trio's North Mississippi hometown and the first album (their fifth studio-recorded release) disseminated through the band's own Songs of the South label.
A band built around the virtuoso guitar playing of frontman Luther Dickinson and the limber rhythm section of his drummer brother Cody and the pair's longtime friend, bassist Chris Chew, the Allstars have had a constant but evolving relationship with blues tradition. The band's first album, 2000's Shake Hands With Shorty, was a blast of reconstituted hill-country blues, the band taking genre standards and favorites and filtering them through their own expansive blues-rock. The band's last album, 2005's Electric Blue Watermelon, was a fond, first-person remembrance of the heyday of the hill-country blues scene, with references to R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner from the vantage point of growing up around those regional legends rather than covers of their songs.
If Electric Blue Watermelon positioned the band in the shadow of that scene, Hernando is the band standing alone — modern blues-rock on almost original songs — but with that blues heritage as a foundation. Where Jungklas spins blues-related imagery into evocative, literary songs, the Allstars draw on the language of the blues to spice recordings that foreground guitar and groove. The opening "Shake" is peppered with hand-me-down phrases such as "shake 'em down!" and "in the by and by," but the real story is Luther's party-starting juke-joint guitar and the thunder the rhythm section supplies for his lightning.
Throughout, lyrical references ("standing on a corner in Holly Springs," "in the backwoods under the sycamore trees") and hill-country blues echoes ground the record in a specific place, but the music grabs for harder-edged blues-rock in the vein of Cream or ZZ Top or the Jimi Hendrix Experience and sometimes veers into metal. The result sounds like a trio no longer obsessed with their own blues-world background but making their own brand of heavy rock with the blues, helplessly, in their veins. M